Akira Kurosawa once told me that if he were to make a film about the Emperor, “I would probably be killed. … Even if the film were highly positive, just the fact that I was using the Emperor as a character would be enough to make (the rightists) mad.”
Kurosawa may have been exaggerating — by 1991, when I interviewed him for The Japan Times Weekly, assassinations for lese-majeste were rare indeed, but he also had a point: Even after the end of World War II and the famous declaration by Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) that he was not a living god, but human like the rest of us, Japanese filmmakers still had to tread carefully around the subject of the Emperor.
Mitsugu Okura, president of the struggling Shintoho studio, violated the taboo against depicting the Emperor on screen in the 1958 epic, “Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso (Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War).” But former silent-era action star Kanjuro Arashi proved a huge hit in the title role. It helped that the film’s depiction of Emperor Meiji, dead nearly half a century by the film’s release, was flattering rather than critical.
Foreign directors have not always been so reverent. In “The Sun,” a 2005 film focusing on Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II and the immediate aftermath, Russian director Alexander Sokorov portrayed his hero as an abstracted, unworldly man living in a tiny bubble that suddenly burst with Japan’s defeat. Starring Issey Ogata, an actor best known for his one-man comic-skit shows, the film was selected for the 2005 Berlin Film Festival and won the grand prize at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival, but was considered a poor prospect for a Japan release until the small distributor Slow Learner opened it in two Tokyo theaters to standing-room-only crowds in August 2006.
When I worked as a script adviser on the Tom Cruise action-drama “The Last Samurai,” however, director Edward Zwick told me he wanted to respect the sensibilities of the Japanese audience, which meant not only showing Emperor Meiji (played by kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura) in a favorable light, but getting the details of court ritual right. He quizzed my fellow advisor Yo Takeyama, a veteran scriptwriter of historical dramas, on how characters, including the American mercenary played by Cruise, should conduct themselves in the Imperial presence, and even had him visit the set in Kyoto for a key scene between the Emperor and a rebel samurai general played by Ken Watanabe.
Partly as a result, local complaints were fewer than usual for a set-in-Japan Hollywood film and “The Last Samurai” went on to earn more here — ¥13.7 billion — than it did in its target market of the United States. The moral, I suppose, is that the Emperor can be big box office — but still watch your back.